Chapters 1-6: Summary and Analysis

New Characters
W. E. B. DuBois: The narrator, a scholar of black identity in post-Civil War America.

Booker T. Washington: A leader who advised blacks to cede social equality in exchange for access to economic power.

President Abraham Lincoln: United States president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.

Frederick Douglass: An advisor to Lincoln and a leader of the abolitionist movement to end slavery.

Atalanta: The mythological maiden whose downfall DuBois links to material temptation.

W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk launches in the late 1800s with an outline of the struggle for black civil rights. It is written during the decades following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively ended slavery in 1863. DuBois uses the occasion as a point of departure for his treatise about the condition of black life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to discuss his ideas about what blacks and America as a nation must and should be doing to ensure equality for all. His book seeks to answer that question by setting forth arguments about the current position of blacks in American society as well as by describing the vision of equality in great detail. He asks what emancipation means, what kind of leadership would emerge to guide the black community into a democratic society, and how blacks could forge an identity that is both black and American (even though America long forbade them freedom).

“How does it feel to be a problem?” asks DuBois, referring to the conundrum of black identity. DuBois’ first encounter with his status as a “problem” takes place in school when a little girl refuses a card he has offered her as part of a class-wide card exchange. He realizes that the Negro has been taught to view himself through the eyes of others and lacks another source upon which to base identity. This results in a “veil” between the black man’s world, where identity is constructed for him, and the white world, where there are more opportunities and possibilities. DuBois refers to this as double-consciousness, and asks how a man can be “both a Negro and an American.” He speaks of the complexity and futility of the Negro’s “double aims,” since achieving self-respect or respect among the Negro community differs from doing so in the often uncharitable white community.

DuBois sketches his analysis of the first four decades following emancipation. During the first decade, he writes, the Negro community strove to identify what exactly freedom meant, what forms it was to take, and how it would change at a time when racism continued and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan existed. The Negro community wanted the vote, but for DuBois the idea of “book-learning” was perhaps more important. This, however, is a complex issue because the Negro who pursues book-learning confronts the veil that has been constructed for him and comes to see how his race has been seen by whites. The encounter is distressing and discouraging—indeed, the world’s response almost reinforces dropping the pursuit altogether. Those who attain book-learning also learn the extent to which their poverty is forced upon them, DuBois notes.

Using his own book-learning, DuBois then traces the plight of the Negro during the years from 1861 to 1872. Referring to the historic struggle between dark- and light-skinned citizens in many societies, he writes, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” DuBois argues that the real reason for the Civil War, often not discussed by politicians or Congress, was opposing views about preserving versus ending slavery. During the war, though, slaves, soldiers, and senators all disagreed on the position of the slave, and their views differed on what troops were to do with slave “refugees.” Were they war property? Were they free? Were they to be returned to their masters? Or enlisted to help fight against the Confederacy that would oppress them?

In 1863, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln freed slaves. This clarified the legal position of blacks, but it also created a national problem. How was the United States going to open up a democratic society for a race of people previously denied democracy, capital, and education? The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by 1864 to help govern and assist the slaves with everything from court representation to labor and land use. DuBois writes that with this creation the United States government did “definitely assume charge of the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation.”

By 1864, the Bureau was overseen by the War Department and Major General Oliver Howard was in charge. The Bureau encountered two challenges: how to use large tracts of land where plantation owners once exploited slaves, and how to extend the Bureau’s organizational structure into different localities. DuBois writes that the Bureau was a mini-government essentially responsible for overseeing the “unreconstructed” or post-war South. The social climate of this South included both whites that had accepted the end of slavery in full and those who paid only lip service to the change and continued to believe that the Negro was inferior.

By 1869, the Bureau’s successes and failures were clear to Dubois. The Bureau had extended medical care to more than 500,000 freed slaves. Also, more than 30,000 freed slaves were transported out of refugee camps and back to agrarian communities where they were offered work. This time, blacks were free to choose employers, but to some degree, the Bureau oversaw creation of labor contracts and other measures to ensure fairness. However, some employers remained tyrants, and some freed slaves were idle, feeling freedom meant freedom from work. Land was available for freedmen to buy and run, though it was difficult for them to purchase.

The Bureau’s major success was extending education to freed slaves. Not only had numerous eager New England schoolteachers migrated south, but the Bureau also pushed the idea of free elementary education for all throughout the South. Despite opposition from those who believed “an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro,” freed slaves and their children were able to attend school. In addition, several African-American colleges were founded, including Fisk, Howard, Atlanta and Hampton.

The Bureau was less successful in assisting the Negro judicially, but it was able to secure freedmen’s “recognition before courts of law.” At the close of the 1860s and throughout the 1870s, there was no political will to grant freed slaves the right to vote—the ultimate measure of democracy. The Freedmen’s Bureau came to see its purpose as temporary, in DuBois’ opinion, and focused on gaining suffrage (or voting rights) for Negroes. However, the organization failed and folded. This inequality saddens DuBois, who writes that “despite compromise, war and struggle, the Negro is not free.” Denied the right to vote, and too new to freedom to have any economic power, the emancipated race still remains segregated and inferior in Dubois’s eyes. However, even some blacks disagree with his assessment.

By 1876, Booker T. Washington, a Negro diplomat and leader, began his ascent to popular power. His ideas posed what DuBois considered an imperfect middle ground between the legacy of slavery and the expansion of freedom for blacks. Washington argued that blacks didn’t immediately need all of the freedoms granted them under emancipation and...

(The entire section is 3124 words.)